Much as he had with his first backing group, Prince wanted each member of Vanity 6 to have a well-defined persona; but where the band dynamic held at least a veneer of egalitarianism, his vision for the girl group was unfettered by matters of subjectivity or nuance. He thus drew their characters straight out of porno archetypes: Vanity, the sensitive harlot whose tough exterior masks a heart of gold; Brenda, the chain-smoking, no-nonsense madam figure; and Susan, the jailbait. Only 18 at the time of their debut, the group’s youngest member shaved off two more years in early interviews–another trick borrowed from Prince’s early career–while projecting an aura of fetishized, all-too-corruptible innocence.
At the core of this dirty-schoolgirl persona was “Drive Me Wild,” another of the handful of songs originally recorded for the proto-Vanity 6 Hookers project in 1981. The story goes that Susan had written the song herself, and recited the lyrics to Prince in a chance meeting at a Minneapolis nightclub (one, apparently, that served teenagers). “He was just standing there drinking orange juice and we started talking,” she told Jet magazine. “I told him that I wrote songs, then gave him a sample of my lyrics: ‘Ooh, look at me. I’m a Cadillac. I’m a brand new convertible child, I’ve never been driven. You’re the first. Come on baby; drive me wild’” (Jet 1983 60).
(Featured Image: The Time at Sam’s, October 7, 1981. L to R: Jimmy Jam, Terry Lewis, Morris Day, Jesse Johnson, Monte Moir. Photo stolen from prince.org.)
During the weeks leading up to the release of their debut album in July 1981, Prince had honed the Time into a formidable live unit. “He brought stuff out of us that we didn’t think we could do,” keyboardist Jimmy Jam later recalled. Left to their own devices, the band would “rehearse for like four hours and think we were tired. We’d go through the set twice and sit around and talk for two hours.” But with Prince as taskmaster, “we’d work five or six hours straight, over and over, no breaks… He would give us keyboard parts that were impossible. We would be like, ‘We can’t play these.’ He would be like, ‘Yeah, you can, and while you’re playing them I want you to do this step of choreography and sing this note of harmony.’ Couple of days later we’d be doing it. A month later we’d be on tour and it would be automatic. He was a great motivator and the thing that made him a great motivator was that he works so hard himself. He’s always squeezing the most out of everything” (Nilsen 1999 87).
That summer, the Time made their live debut in a showcase for Warner Bros. executives at S.I.R. Studios on Sunset Boulevard–the same venue where, three years earlier, Prince had held auditions for his own backing band. “It was just 10 or 12 of us,” Marylou Badeaux, at that time a marketing executive in the label’s “Black Music” division, told biographer Per Nilsen. “We went down there after work one day to be shown this new Warner Bros. group that was produced by Jamie Starr. No one knew who Jamie Starr was. They turned off all the lights, and this diminutive little character with a veil walked in to stand behind the console and mix it. Somebody says, ‘That’s Jamie Starr!’ And I looked and said, ‘No, that’s Prince!’” (Nilsen 1999 87).
This Saturday on Andresmusictalk, I’m stretching the definition of the “Prince protégé” a bit to talk about Sheila E: Prince’s longtime collaborator, on-and-off sidewoman, briefly his fiancée, and most recently, perhaps the most prominent carrier of his musical legacy. Check it out here:
Every once in a while, we’ll interrupt our usual programming on dance / music / sex / romance to repost something relevant from our sister site, Dystopian Dance Party. Today–and in honor of D.D.P.’s most sacred holiday season, Jheri Curl June–it’s a podcast where my cohost Callie and I look at the cottage industry of (very) thinly-veiled side projects introduced by Prince between 1981 and 1987: including the Time, Vanity 6, Sheila E, Apollonia 6, the Family, Mazarati, Jill Jones, and others. If you’re a Prince fan–and, if you’re at this website, I’m going to go out on a limb and guess you are–then some of this stuff is essential listening.
First, though, a word of warning, as I’m afraid there’s a factual error in this one: I was speaking from memory in the section about Sheila E, and incorrectly stated that “Noon Rendezvous” began life as a Revolution outtake. It was actually co-written by Prince and Sheila for the Glamorous Life album; the Revolution just happened to cover it in concert. Oops! Anyway, I left that bit in because I still like the song, so just enjoy the music and try to ignore the fact that I’m blatantly lying to you.
Show notes are here. We’ll be back to the chronological Prince grind starting, I believe, Wednesday; in the meantime, check out Dystopian Dance Party every weekday in June for more ’80s R&B that owes more than a slight debt to His Royal Badness.